Dueling Counts

For Negroni Week, here’s a brief history of the Negroni filtered through James Bond
photo by Chris Pople
photo by Chris Pople

In his book Everyday Drinking, acclaimed British author Kingsley Amis described the Americano as “good at lunchtime and before Italian food.” He then went on to write: “If you feel that, pleasant as it is, it still lacks something, throw in a shot of gin and the result is a Negroni. This is a really fine invention. It has the power, rare with drinks and indeed with anything else, of cheering you up.”

Among other literary accomplishments, Amis was hired to write the first official James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, after the death of Ian Fleming. The Americano, incidentally, is the first drink we ever see (well, read about) James Bond drinking. When he’s introduced in Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale, Bond is sipping an Americano. The first drink Bond has in Fleming’s short story Risico, while meeting with his contact Kristatos, is a Negroni, “with Gordon’s please.” In the movie For Your Eyes Only, which is loosely adapted in part from this story, the drink is changed to the Greek pastis ouzo, which happens to play a major role in Amis’ Bond novel, Colonel Sun. In the cinematic adaptation of Thunderball, Bond congratulates himself for disarming a henchman by mixing himself up a Negroni.

The origins of the drink, like so many, are a mix of supposition and the acceptance of hearsay as fact because, “Eh, why not? That’s been the story for a long time.” As that story goes, the Negroni was invented at the Caffè Casoni (formerly Caffè Giacosa) in Florence when Italian Count Camillo Negroni explained to the resident bartender, Fosco Scarselli, that, while the count did love himself an Americano, he wanted something similar but with a little more punch to it. Negroni suggested ditching the Americano’s soda in favor of gin. Scarselli obliged, also substituting a garnish of orange peel for the Americano’s lemon peel. And so was born the Negroni, according to the book Sulle Tracce del Conte: La Vera Storia del Cocktail Negroni, written in 2002 by Lucca Picchi. There is now also an English translation, Negroni Cocktail: An Italian Legend

This account of this Count seems reasonable but has been disputed rather hotly and with supporting documentation by one Noel Negroni, who claims that it was a relative of his, Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni, a Corsican war hero who famously led the first cavalry charge of the Franco Prussian War of 1870, who invented the drink. According to Noel Negroni, there never was a Count Camillo Negroni, as no such person shows up in the Negroni family histories. Instead, it was Pascal who invented the cocktail, while stationed in Senegal, and dedicated it to his wife to be. This claim is supported by personal letters mentioning the drink, though it would have been a bit different back then, since Campari was not yet in existence. Although the record is unclear, there would have been any number of similar bitter liqueurs from which he could have chosen. He also probably wouldn’t have called it a Negroni, though who knows with those aristocratic military types? More than likely, people who liked the drink were asking for that Count Negroni cocktail, and the name just stuck. And if it was Camillo who invented the drink? Well, same thing. “Give me an Americano the Negroni way” just becomes Negroni.

Of course, Noel’s research doesn’t preclude there being a different Negroni family than his own or of one man having multiple names. Which, it turns out, is exactly the case. The existence of Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni has never been in doubt, but like Noel Negroni, people began to think that this mysterious and flamboyant Count Camillo was just a myth – until recently, when confirmation of his existence and immigration to New York was discovered by Drinking Cup writer Rusty Hawthorne and a phalanx of other researchers who decided to get to the bottom of things. Or at least, there was indeed a guy named Camillo Negroni, who, it seems, was some manner of Count. As for the rest of his rather fanciful, biography… well, there is not any proof that Count Camillo was the swashbuckling cowboy cosplayer claimed by the legend. Count Camillo Negroni, in that legend if not reality, was an incredible individual who shared one peculiar trait with Seraffimo Spang, the eccentric head of the Spangled Mob in Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever: they both loved dressing up like cowboys. Picchi’s book paints the portrait of a man who was the grandson of English Romantic poet Walter Savage Landor and who spent a large portion of his life living in America, first working as a cowboy (thus his affinity for dressing up like one) and later as a gambler in New York City. Other than his existence, his presence in New York, and a photo that makes him look more like a humorless banker played by Lon Chaney than a professional adventurer, most of the claims about his activities remain unsubstantiated.

The debate has been escalated online, as things online inevitably are, to a battle over the honor of two competing families, one Italian and the other Corsican, over a claim that it’s unlikely could ever be definitively proven and which would, in the end, reap them no particular benefits other than points of pride. Still, the lengths to which the Corsican Negronis have gone to debunk the claims that Count Camillo Negroni invented the cocktail are as impressive as they are extreme, and include among other things the hiring of handwriting analysts and mounting an expedition to Senegal to investigate proof. That alone deserves a toast.

In any case, the almost universally accepted image of Count Negroni – a tall, mustachio’d man in a top hat, a cardboard cut-out of which accompanies almost every Negroni Week celebration and is widely circulated by writers and brands alike – isn’t any Negroni at all, Camillo or Pascal. It’s actually anthropologist and explorer Arnold Henry Savage Landor. Count Camillo does have a possible tenuous link to the Landor family through his mother, but that link has yet to be proven as anything other than a coincidence of name, much like the one that confused the two Count Negronis. However, it might explain how a portrait of Arnold Henry Savage Landor ever came to be mistaken as a picture of Count Negroni. Whether or not you should affect a bad Sean Connery slur next time someone names Landor as Negroni and explain to them, “Actually, that’sh exshplorer Arnold Landor, a lover of catsh,” depends entirely on you and whether or not you want friends.

negronis

In the end, it seems like the true origin of the cocktail will remain disputed, but does it really matter? I mean, look at these back stories. And while that may continue to be a bone of contention among the families vying for the claim of “inventor of the Negroni,” in the end, I think the cocktail is better served by fanciful legend than truth. Whatever the case may be, we drinkers win. For starters, the Negroni is a fabulous cocktail. Simple but complex, a good baseline for judging the mixing prowess of any bartender. Second, the thing was invented either by a fist-pumping 19th century war hero who led a dramatic charge and basically lived like an Alexandre Dumas character, or it was invented by an eccentric count who dressed up like a cowboy and gambled with gangsters in New York. The important thing is, you can order one.

As another famous Negroni fan, Orson Welles, once said, ““The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.”

Negroni

 

  • 1 oz /30 mL Sweet Red Vermouth
  • 1 oz/30 mL  Gin

Build in a glass tumbler with ice and stir, garnish with an orange peel. 

When James Bond sips a Negroni in Italy, he specifies his preferred brand: Gordon’s. In this case it must always be stirred, not shaken. 

Bars around the world will be taking part in Campari and Imbibe’s Negroni Week from June 6 – 12, where Negroni cocktails and their many variations will be sold for charity. If you happen to find yourself in Florence during the festivities, drop by the Caffe Giacosa (Piazza Strozzi 1, 50123 Florence) and toast both Count Negronis. Cowboy attire is optional.

 

Resources

Better men and women than I have dug into this mystery. I suggest you give them a read.

 

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